Ethics brawl: Watchdog officials debate gift ban

Philadelphia Inspector General Amy Kurland. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Many of the city's top ethics officials gathered today to debate how the city should regulate gifts for municipal employees, and things got heated - well, at least by Ethics Board meeting standards.

Two Nutter administration officials, Inspector General Amy Kurland and Chief Integrity Officer Joan Markman, urged the board to shoot down the proposed regulation, which would limit cash gifts to $50 and non-cash gifts to $200 in value.

"This regulation creates more problems than it solves," said Markman, describing hypothetical scenarios in which officials could solicit and accept gifts, like a $199 watch - something she would now advise against. "This is just plain NUTS!"

Nutter attached a letter to their testimony and wrote that he "can imagine no credible justification for the unfathomable and egregious scenarios that the Regulation permits."

Ellen Mattleman Kaplan, of the good-government group Committee of Seventy, said she would rather see the board ban cash gifts entirely and limit - gifts to those worth $50. 

"Only in very very limited circumstances should any city employee be permitted to accept gifts," she said. "Nobody should send this message louder and clearer than this Board of Ethics."

Kaplan's comments prompted board member Brian McCormick to defend the work of the board's staff, saying he took "offense" to the suggestion that they were "hiding behind" the wording of the law as an excuse for a bad regulation.

Kaplan clarified that she didn't mean to criticize the staff or the board.

Former Ethics Board chair Richard Glazer attended the meeting and didn't plan to speak. But after hearing the other speakers, he felt compelled to get the staff's back

"I was compelled to speak because I did not think that the full context of what the staff did was being considered," Glazer said after the meeting. 

He added that he supports the staff's position that there needs to be a bright line for when gifts are acceptable, because the current law - which bans gifts of "substantial economic value" - is too vague.

"The problem is that there have been over decades folks that have raised the issue," he said, "and it's just not right to have something where 'substantial economic value' is constantly being asked about and requested without there being any definition of it."

He declined to say what he thinks the limit should be.

Board Executive Director Shane Creamer said that under current rules, gifts exceeding $200 are sometimes permitted. 

"People are losing sight at times that we're interpreting an existing law and that law permits people to accept a certain level of gifts," he said. "Our proposed regulation would actually limit the types and amounts of gifts compared to past interpretations of the existing law."

The board could vote in its December meeting or take additional time.

The board members' questions today focused on how the witnesses viewed the board's options - whether the regulation should be amended or whether there needs to be one at all. They did not hint as to how they were leaning in that regard.

Chair Michael Reed did say, however, that they are united in their opposition to a "friendship exception," in which employees can accept certain gift, but only from friends.